Back in the late 1800s, the war had become more of a memory than a recent occurrence. Industrialism had taken root, and with the brick factories, towering stacks, and network of railways, Atlanta was well on its way to becoming the regional center of trade and commerce. Though it had been burned to the ground only a few short decades earlier, urban life had sprung from the ashes.
Atlanta has always been a lush place, but the areas of public green space had been relegated to the neighborhoods that were, one by one, springing up throughout the landscape. Up until the last decades of the 19th century, there wasn’t one (for lack of a better word) central park.
But if anything, Atlanta needed some venue at which to showcase its prowess. Expositions were all the rage at the time (being World’s Fair-ready was a sign that a city had “made it”), so the powers that be selected famed landscape architect Joseph Forsyth Johnson to design a space in what is now Midtown Atlanta. Johnson had just finished Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York, so when he was commissioned to do a job in Atlanta, his mind was flooded with ideas.
The end result was a sort of primordial Piedmont Park. The expositions were held there were a success, certainly, and served their intended purposes nicely, but by the time 19-oughts rolled around, it was clear that this piece of land was only serving the minimal amount of potential it had up its sleeve. The City of Atlanta purchased the property, as well as some surrounding green space, and procured two of the most influential landscape architects in the country at that time: the Olmstead brothers. These two had a lot of live up to: their father was the guy responsible for laying out Central Park in New York City.
The plan was a big one, and honestly, the brothers were a little worried that the city might not be able to foot the bill for what they had in mind: a five-mile walking trail; spaces for swimming, athletics, recreation; a multitude of trees and greenery brought in from other parts of the region; variations in topography; a beautification process that would really make the lake “pop;” and most of all, the sort of infrastructure that would ultimately drive up residential desirability in the surrounding neighborhoods (it worked in New York, so why not in Atlanta?). Suffice to say, money was pushed around, and it didn’t take long for a rough draft to be applied to real life.
It’s been more than a century since this revamped mega park was officially completed, and it’s pretty easy to tell that the brothers’ vision was a success. Today, Piedmont Park stands as one of the most pristine areas of green space in the South, and for many an Atlantan, it’s the crown jewel in a city that holds its public parks dear.
If you’re a newcomer however, it’s very possible that you haven’t taken the time to give this park a look-around. Here are some highlights and points of interest for those who have yet to be acquainted:
Lining 10th Street, Oak Hill is a beautiful bit of elevated topography that offers, among a bit of solitude, a stunning view of the Midtown skyline. It’s particularly popular on the first really pretty Saturday of spring, when folks gravitate here, picnic baskets in hand, to spend an afternoon in the sun.
Located in the Southeast corner of the park, the meadow is a massive expanse of grass. On any given weekend, you’re guaranteed to see people tossing a football, hosting impromptu yoga glasses, or hurling a frisbee back and forth. This is also the location for some of the year’s biggest festivals: the mainstage for Music Midtown sets up here in September.
Believe it or not, you could actually swim in this lake up until the 1970s. That’s no longer allowed (there’s a pool just nearby if you need to beat the heat), though Clara Meer does offer some wonderful views, especially from the dock located only a few steps away from the 12th Street Gate.
A running track surrounds this small complex of sports fields. This part of the park is especially popular with intramural clubs who gather here after work for rounds of kickball, touch football, soccer—you name it. The Aquatic Center is right next door, too—check with them about pool pass membership, but expect a crowd, especially as it gets closer to summer.
One part ultimate cocktail party venue, one part historic prestige, Magnolia hall is as Southern as it gets: a beautiful building that serves as an excellent gathering spot and a repository for the park’s history.
The Olmstead Brothers’ vision lives on in this interconnected network of walking trails. There’s no one place to visit, so best to set aside a couple of hours for a leisurely stroll—keep an eye open for turn-of-the-century aesthetic elements like immaculately preserved stone walls, grand staircases, and in the north end of the park, the Legacy Fountain and the Promenade.
This patch of land is separate from the park, though it’s located on the same piece of land (a modest price of admission is required to get in, most days). But the gardens are second to none in the city: a constantly revolving display of region plants are maintained with obsessive scrutiny, and there are enough winding footpaths throughout this landmark to make you forget that you’re smack-dab in the middle of five million people.
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